mr. difficult

June 4, 2009

So I read that new Jonathan Franzen story in the New Yorker today and at first I just hate hate hated it, and this is in part because I hate it when stories start with the full name of a main character, like when a story starts like “FirstName LastName was/did/felt something,” like, I just can’t stand that kind of Dick and Jane declarative opening to a story, it seems so stagey and false, so unsubtle, like it’s coming from somebody who doesn’t have DEEP WRITERLY PASSION LIKE ME but instead like somebody who has this special notebook full of quirky and interesting character names that they’ve saved and collected over a period of time, like the writerly version of one of those people who cut out magazine pictures of desired things for their inspiration walls, but also besides all of this, I was really predisposed to hate Jonathan Franzen because at a formative moment in college, I think summer of junior year, I read that big Ben Marcus takedown of him in a back issue of Harper’s and I remember reading that takedown excitedly and being like, “Fuck yeah, Ben Marcus, you tell that douchebag!” because I went to Florida State and that’s how we expressed ourselves, I think I might’ve smashed a can of Natty against my forehead afterwards just for good measure, and then, in the interest of keeping my readerly high going, I thumbed down through the unthumbed stacks of the New Yorker at the library to find Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” which had inspired the aforementioned Ben Marcus takedown, and I read it and you know honestly didn’t think it was that bad of an essay and didn’t even really disagree with it that much at all, I had actually tried and failed to read Gaddis earlier that year because I had written this story called “Che Guevara takes his date to McDonalds” which was about an insecure college student (totally not autobiographical, workshop!) who had assumed the identity of Che Guevara by buying a uniform at the Gap and after the workshop, my professor had told me I should check out William H. Gass, he thought I would really like him, “the early stuff, especially,” and I had said, trying to sound smart, “Oh, I know him, he’s the guy that wrote The Recognitions, right?” and he said, “No, that’s William Gaddis” and this was so like the Barthes/Barth debacle of 2005, so embarassing, Walter Kirn, and so I had gone to the library after class and gotten In The Heart of The Heart of The Country (which I still think is the best title of a thing ever, way better than “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel and some of the essays and also The Recognitions and A Frolic of His Own and I didn’t make any progress in any of them, not one, they were all too hard for me except for In The Heart… which wasn’t hard but was just boring and I think I got through maybe about thirty pages of The Tunnel which I found the most readable of the lot except there was all this unpleasant stuff in it about shitting and Nazis and I was like, you know, fuck this and I just read Vox again and probably jerked off, although before I took the books back to the library, I did get really high and flip through Willie Masters’, which activity I think is like the pretentious literary version of a little kid looking wide-eyed at a vintage seventies Playboy found in a moldy box in the garage, but then I had forgotten about all of this stuff by the time I read that Ben Marcus takedown of Jonathan Franzen and so I read it and I was all like “Fuck yeah, Ben Marcus! Fuck you, Jonathan Franzen!” and this was the kind of thing I did on Saturday afternoons when my friends went to football games and I was bored and waiting until it was time to get drunk, and so in my mind I’ve always had this subconscious prejudice against Jonathan Franzen based on really nothing substantial at all, the Oprah thing, I guess, maybe that, but so I would read something by him that I would find myself enjoying, like that essay about Peanuts from The Discomfort Zone that was in the New Yorker, and I would find myself enjoying it but I would tell myself, like, “Oh, well even assholes can turn out something decent sometimes,” you know, like what-fucking-ever J. Franzen, and so basically what I am saying here is that when I started reading Jonathan Franzen’s new story in the New Yorker, which is called “Good Neighbors,” I was really, really hating it, okay, like a lot, and as I continued to read the first page, I continued to hate it, like there was this line at the beginning of the second paragraph which started, “In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious,” and I was a little physically sick at that, like, oh my god, Volvo, and my eyes were hurting from looking at the computer screen too much and the descriptions I was reading were so arch and polished and sure of themselves, you know, they were so kind of zippy and pert, all snickering at their own jokes, and I was really just hating my way through this story and so I got to the clickthrough at the bottom of the page and my mouse cursor turned into the little hand but I hesitated, like, do I really want to spend any more time reading this asshole and his characters and their words, there is a world out there with light and people and activity, you don’t have to do this, I told myself, but then after a second I clicked through anyway because why not, it’s not like I was paying for this shit, right, and so I kept reading and I’m so glad I did because I really, really liked it, it was great, it reminded me of like reading an Alice Munro story or something, not that they have anything in common and I’m realizing this is a personal metaphor that makes no sense to anybody but okay like in that it was so not like the kind of stories I write or regularly read or the stories that if you asked me what kind of stories I like, I would say, “I like _____,” but then I read it by chance, like I would read a stray Alice Munro thing in an anthology or magazine, and I was just kind of pleasantly surprised with how nice and wonderful it was to read, how much I enjoyed it, like, hey, what do you know, here’s this good story written by a guy I had dismissed for being an asshole, and anyway to get to the point, the way that all of this is connected to I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here is how tonight’s episode was all about what it’s like to be a good neighbor and/or a bad neighbor, how people can and can’t live together, the paradoxes of community, and also there is a connection between the two of them in the way that Angela, the most whiny and complaining and emotionally insecure celebrity (who I still kind of loved for all those attributes while still recognizing them as negative) was voted off of the show tonight and this is like how the way Patty Berglund, who I also loved for her flaws, gets punished for her being herself in “Good Neighbors,” but honestly, really and truly, that’s all just nonsense, okay, self parody, and I give up with this I’m a Celebrity shit, that show tonight was absolutely horrible, it was painful to sit through the whole thing and I hope nobody reading this did so on my account and I cannot in good conscience continue to recommend it to you or dress it up in my pseudo-intellectual bullshit and rhetorical flourishes, it is just bad, okay, so maybe instead of watching it you should just read that story, it’s pretty good if you can get past the first page.

serial killed

June 4, 2009

Based on some very approximate and lazy calculations which don’t account for holidays, reruns, the US Open, or episode length compression caused by time shifting through commercials, so far this this year, I’ve watched 102 hours of the daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, which if you’re as slow at math as I am adds up to over two full weeks of constant television viewing, and, let me tell you, I would not trade all of this for anything in the world except maybe having a life or whatever, but seriously, it is the best televisual experience I know and it gets better every day and if in some ridiculous hypothetical situation someone (zombie Adorno?) was holding a gun to my head and told me that I could only watch one TV show for the rest of my life, I have no doubt that I would immediately choose The Young and the Restless as that show, would not even hesitate, that’s how much I enjoy it, and what you have to understand is that the The Young and the Restless is not good, okay, I mean, I’m not an idiot, I can recognize that, I do recognize it, every day as I watch, I am hit in the face with how not good it is and I yell at the screen about how not good it is, what stupid thing is happening now and what stupid character is saying what stupid saying and there are so many stupid things, like just for example on today’s episode, this character who during the last couple of months committed a string of bank robberies wearing a giant silver chipmunk mask because being abused as a child had left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which caused him, when triggered by certain gestures, to return to a childlike state and succumb to the whims of an evil con man who pretend to be his father, this character was really depressed about people writing all these negative things about him on Internet forums and so, in order to try to “change his image,” he called in to a sports radio talk show hosted by baseball legend Tommy Lasorda (in a bizarre cameo) and vented about his “feelings,” all of this happening over the course of several poorly blocked segments involving the character talking into a prop cell phone and the disembodied voice of Mr. Lasorda very, very slowly helping him “deal with his issues” and the character eventually “coming to his senses” in the last segment just in time for Tommy to plug his Tommy Lasorda Chianti Classico and I mean, like, HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH YET?! but still, I watched it and I enjoyed it, genuinely, because the thing is that The Young and the Restless could be much, much worse than it is and I would still enjoy it because at this point, I’ve watched so much of it and am so invested in the characters and stories that even if tommorow all the characters started wearing hot pink singlets and floppy straw hats and speaking exclusively in Pig Latin, I would probably continue to watch, and this is the crazy, addictive power of the serial narrative, it’s kind of like when you hear about people getting a DVD box set of Lost or The Wire and putting in the first disc and then losing all sense of time and space, surrendering to the glow of the screen, and after hours or day have gone by without sleeping or exercise or productive living, they emerge unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed from the darkness, yawning and rubbing their eyes, and like, part of that is because Lost and The Wire are really good shows, but it also has to do with the formal qualities of the medium, the immersion that these “big shows” create, how all of these doses of narrative and character development are doled out from episode to episode in order to connect us to the characters and make us care what will happen in the story (and this serial addiction is not some evil invention of network executives in a boardroom somewhere, of course, but part of an artistic lineage that includes Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov and Dickens and etc.) and all of this is the reason why it’s so smart of NBC to air I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here four nights a week, four nights in a row, because even if the show is not particularly interesting or good (the idiotic hosts make me yearn for Jeff Probst, which is, you know, disturbing) and even though the celebrities are not really “celebrities,” if the producers can manage through all this extratextual drama about Heidi and Spencer (and Daniel Baldwin?) to keep their audience hooked through the first week and keep the show in the gossip news cycle, which they seem to be doing pretty well, they may be able to lock their viewers in for the duration of the show regardless of the its quality simply because watching it will become part of the audience’s daily routine, a summer idyll, and because of this routine watching, the alternate reality of the show will become a familiar, if not pleasant, place to return to again and again, just like Terra (snob allusion) or Middle Earth (loser allusion), and then all of a sudden all of these regular, sane Americans will find themselves waiting to check in on Lou Diamond Phillips or wondering if Janice Dickinson got a good night’s sleep, all of us just serial killed by the power of the form, sort of like how if you’re reading my writing for the first time right now, you might think that this is rambling and weird and not very good (and you would be in some sense right!), but if you’d read the posts I’ve done the last two days in the same style, you would be more ready to accept this big post I’m writing now because at this point you would have devoted enough time to be involved in my character and interested what my character has to tell you, which, you know, hopefully you are.


(Tangent: The biggest drama on Y & R recently has actually been off screen, something I read on Perez Hilton, which is that apparently the actor Chris Engen, who played the evil long-lost son of one of the show’s patriarchs, recently walked off set and broke his contract because he didn’t want his character to become gay, and while obviously if he was actually leaving the show because he didn’t want to “kiss a dude,” bro, it would be ridiculous, the truth is that the character he was playing was absolutely absurd even by soap opera standards — his motivations and plots seemed to change almost daily for no apparent reason and his antics were more madcap and ridiculous than in a Marlowe play or episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle (this is a character who was injecting Botox into his eyes so that he could pretend to be blind!).  It could also be true that it was homophobia in some sense, that he didn’t want his character to become gay because he’s not gay and, in an inversion of the serial narrative thing I was talking about above, I think soap opera actors tend to be weirdly connected with their characters simply by virtue of how long they play them — for example, the central character of Katherine Chancellor on Y & R has been played by the same actress for 36 years — like, in the theater the equivalent of this would be playing Lady Macbeth five nights a week for your entire life, which I think would kind of fuck with anyone’s head.)

After I watched The Young and The Restless yesterday, I walked the dog, and as I walked the dog, I listened to the Slate Culture Gabfest Podcast because seemingly I can do no activity without taking in some form of media, because I am a person who is sick, because I always need to be entertained, and so on this week’s podcast, the three regular hosts along with their guest Troy Patterson were talking about the premiere of Jon and Kate Plus 8, which, you know, little late, guys, but anyway, I was really disappointed because as you can hear in the clip above, Slate’s deputy editor Julia Turner completely trashed the intertextuality and Kmart Target realism of JAK+8 and that was disappointing to me personally because I’ve been listening to that podcast for like a year now probably and because of that time investment, I feel “familiar” with the hosts similarly to how I feel familiar with characters on The Young and the Restless, I am “invested” in and “committed” to them, and Julia Turner is my favorite host since she’s the one most likely to defend manifestations of contemporary pop culture as opposed to cohost Stephen Metcalf, who repeatedly quotes William James on his Twitter (!) and uses words like “Götterdämmerung” in casual conversation, and film critic Dana Stevens, who during a recent discussion of Eminem said, “I really at this point mainly listen to, like, Baroque music,” but anyway, I completely disagree with Julia Turner about JAK+8 because the thing is, it was a popular and successful and well-liked show before the tabloid rumors, but, because of the intertextuality and minimalism of this season, it’s only become better both in terms of art and commerce.  This is why I think so:

Let me describe serial narratives like The Wire or Big Love, which, in the cliched comparison we hear over and over again are like “novels on TV,”  let me describe them as being vertical shows, which is to say that their meaning comes entirely from their source, the piling on of episode after episode by the show’s creators to create this massive, towering narrative emanating from a single point.  These author-driven shows are hermetically sealed — they may offer “an insightful commentary on contemporary society” but their narratives don’t actually interact with the real wold in any way and any integration that their marketing departments try to create with the world is tangential and insignificant (character blogs and et cetera).  On the other hand, shows like The Hills or this season of Jon and Kate Plus 8 are what I would call horizontal shows (am I stealing this shit from The World Is Flat or something?), which is to say that instead of relying on the main text of the show to create their meaning, they depend on connections between all the different media in order to exist, and the main text of the show is just one manifestation of its aura.  This is a model that I (and others) would argue was created by the third season of The Hills, when, in the summer before the show, tabloid rumors spread about the release of a Lauren Conrad sex tape, building anticipation for the season premiere.  When the season premiere aired (to a huge audience), Heidi and Lauren had this big, screaming fight about the sex tape without ever actually explicitly mentioning it, just Lauren screaming,  over and over,”You know what you did,” at Heidi, but never actually saying what that thing she did was.  All of this was what catapulted The Hills from being a relatively popular MTV show into this huge zeitgeist phenomenon and now the same thing has happened here to drive Jon and Kate Plus 8 to TLC’s highest ever ratings– these extratextual tabloid rumors fueling intense public interest in a main text which refuses to directly acknowledge those rumors.

While I have no problem with vertical shows (The Wire and Big Love are both excellent, classic television), I think that the horizontal show is a better form for now, a more contemporary television experience.  This is because, first of all, in our fragmented media environment, horizontal shows are a rare example of a symbiotic relationship between different forms of media, the television shows whose stars reveal new things in the tabloids or on the gossip websites which sells the tabloids or drives clicks to the gossip websites which thus provide free advertising for the television shows, which gives people a reason to buy the tabloids and click on the gossip websites and so on and et cetera, all of this making money (?) and creating content for everybody.  Artistically, though, I also think they’re more interesting.  For all the talk of how “smart” and “deep” it is, a show like The Wire doesn’t really require you, the audience member, to actually think at all — you just, to quote Homer Simpson, “strap yourself in and feel the G’s,” submit yourself to David Simon’s vision and allow him to give you your carefully timed injections of narrative and character and excitement.  Horizontal shows, on the other hand, require thought and interpretation and research to watch and understand and even just to follow, because, the thing is, the shows are never giving you the whole truth or the whole meaning, if that truth or meaning even exists, they’re constantly requiring you to interpret and make connections to try to get at this truth, and in doing so, they create this huge audience experience that doesn’t have to be contained within the hour that the show is on every week or the television that you watch it on, that is spread through the culture and the internet and is generated by press outlets and bloggers and Twitterers as well as the show’s producers, that is constantly changing and developing hour by hour and requiring your attention and thought, that instead of allowing you to forget about the characters until you tune in next week is always pinging your headspace (and your email, and your favorite blog) with micro plot developments and extra details and feints and falsehoods that you have to keep in your mind to judge against what you’ve seen on TV, assaulting your consciousness with its presence, and, like, I think Shakespeare has some quote about “infinite jest” or something like that but right now I really have to go check Harvey Levin’s Twitter feed to see if Spencer called him again from Costa Rica and I’m just so tired.


(from Augustine’s Confessions, Chapter 3)

I said my prayers tonight when I got in bed like always and, tonight, before I said my prayers, which I did at about 10:30 or so, with the lights off and my glasses on my pillow, like always, I watched the second episode of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and I watched that NBC special on the Obama White House after that, and I enjoyed them both, really, I ate Raisin Bran with extra sugar during the special, and as I started saying my prayers, which I guess I don’t really “say,” if you want to get technical about it, like if you put a microphone under my pillow to catch an objective record of my prayers you wouldn’t really get speech as we think of it with identifiable words and phrases, what you would get would be sound, mumbles and exhalations and deep chest filling inhales at certain moments, fear and trembling and all that but also hope and resolve and also repetition and all of this in the form of these sound fragments, this private language, and as I started saying my prayers I was having trouble focusing on them, partially because it’s so hot here even with the fan on, the fan making its fan noise which is distracting but also reassuring, which is why that female comic Angela on I’m A Celebrity… totally won my love forever tonight when she cried describing the comfort of listening to her partner snore next to her, but anyway I was having trouble focusing on my prayers partially because of heat and noise but partially because those shows  I had watched were still in my mind and I had to get them out of it to focus on my prayers, which was hard, it’s always hard for me, clearing out my mind is always the hardest thing about praying or meditating or being happy or whatever, insert your belief system or lack thereof here, and I did my best to do this, to cleanse, and I said my prayers and it wasn’t the best prayer experience ever, it wasn’t, you know, a religious experience, ha ha, but I did what I needed to do and I felt better afterwards like almost always and ready to try to write but even still after this cleansing thing I supposedly did I was still thinking about the shows as I sat there in the heat and the dark and the fan noise and I think the part of the Obama White House special that I enjoyed the most was when Brian Williams and Barack were in the car riding together to go get lunch at the burger joint, the two of them in the presidential car with one camera real close in on them because there was no room to pull back any further, the frame shaking as the car shook on the road, the car making car noises because even the president’s car makes car noises, apparently, rattles and thumps, and so they were in the car and Brian Williams was in probably his most private moment with the president in the whole show, this real, special, authentic, verite moment with the two of them together, and so of course what Brian decided to talk to him about in this moment was watching television, like, so Brian in the lead-up to his question paints this picture of Obama in his bedroom late at night watching TV and flipping channels and seeing all of these people on the channels talking about him, the pundits and commentators all punditing and commenting re: Obama and Barack sitting there in his pajamas and flipping from channel to channel and just seeing them over and over again, and Brian asks him about whether he pays attention to them, whether he watches these people talking about him and how it affects him, and Obama does his trademark Obama chuckle and he tells incredulous Brian that no, he doesn’t watch them, he doesn’t pay them any mind, but then instead of totally dismissing them, he makes this analogy in which he compares the people on cable news shows and talk radio to professional wrestlers, these men who inside “are good guys,” he says, and who are playing these artificial roles because that’s their job, and he points this out sagely and wisely and with aplomb and yet of course he’s pointing out the artifice of punditry in the middle of this perfect TV moment of his which has been completely and totally constructed for the NBC television crew, a point which has been made by somebody from the press pool minutes earlier, but even though Obama and the pundits are in some sense exactly the same, even they’re both on a formal level these public personas performing in constructed scenes and situations for a mass audience, they’re also not the same, they’re different, they’re not the same if only because you believe him and you don’t believe them, if only for belief, the difference is as simple as that, the power of belief and how it can animate and transform things and make them different, and then I’m thinking how in English we use the same word, “host,” for a television presenter like Brian Williams and also for the bread which people put on their tongue and which based on belief can change inside them from bread into something more than bread, some other filling thing.


I was swimming in the ocean this past Sunday afternoon because swimming in the ocean is the thing in my life right now that makes me feel the most alive and good, to be in the water and be held by it and float and kick and dive, to be a small thing with other small things in this bigger thing, this biggest thing, that’s what I like, plus also as an added bonus it’s a really good workout, I think it’s doing excellent things for my core, but anyway, I was swimming and it was a sunny day this past Sunday after a week of rain and so the beach was crowded,  the water was calm and glassy, the water here is almost always calm and glassy, I find, there are no waves, there is no surf, and it was a shallow day, really shallow, which has something to do with the tides which are mysterious forces beyond my comprehension like calculus, but anyway because of this combination of factors, for me to get at a depth where I could comfortably swim along a straight line parallel to the beach and not be obstructed by children and inflatable rafts, I had to go out pretty far, I was probably about 40 feet out, which maybe seems pretty far as a number but at that distance the water was still only about chest deep and it was so warm and it felt incredible and so I was swimming up the coast, measuring my progress by the hotels which dot the coastline and so I was swimming along and feeling happy and breathing and after I had been swimming for about a half hour or so, I looked at the beach and noticed this woman laying on her side at the edge of the surf and this cluster of people standing around her, maybe five or six people, and I was far out in the water and I didn’t have my glasses on but as I slowed to a crawl and watched the scene, I knew, I could tell after watching for just a minute that this was a drowned woman, it was, she wasn’t facing me, her face was towards the shore, but she was on her side in this weird, awful, contorted position and she was just laying there not moving at the edge of the water and the waves were lapping up around her body and then receding, and the beach here doesn’t have a gentle slope but has like a sharp, angular drop-off, like a 45 degree angle, and she was laying on this diagonal not moving and the group of people were clustered around her staring at her body and talking to each other and then another person ran up to them from somewhere off the beach and told them something and they talked about it and then one of reached in and touched her and she moved suddenly, she half sat up for a second and then she flopped back down and didn’t move and the person backed away and they kept talking and I was out there in the ocean treading water and watching all this, riveted, because what else is there to look at in the ocean, and as I continued watching and floating and kicking my legs to keep my heart rate up, I saw her move again and then again, not big movements, not getting up and standing and being okay movements, but small, awkward movements, writhing there in the surf, the waves lapping at her, and I just kept wondering, like, where is the ambulance, where are the paramedics, where is the lifeguard with his orange backboard riding up on an ATV to take care of her, but nobody came, and she kept moving there in the surf like that, twisting her body, and I looked up from her to the cluster of people and I thought I saw something but I wasn’t sure because of the distance and my bad vision and so I squinted and then I really saw it, I saw that one of them had a camera, a professional looking one with a big lens, probably an SLR or whatever, some abbreviation, and he was taking pictures of her with the camera and she was moving as he took the pictures, posing, making new positions.  She wasn’t dying, she was modeling.


After my prayers tonight, when I sat here in front of the screen in the dark and tried to think of things to say to you, I realized this thing about myself which was that even though on the one hand, I pray every night, and even though on the other hand, I really love and care about and am so interested in celebrities, I’ve never once in my life prayed for a celebrity, it’s not something I can ever remember doing, not for anybody, not ever, which I don’t know why I haven’t exactly, since like I said there are celebrities I care about, that I think about more than a lot of people I really know, and I always hear in the tabloids about all the awful things that happen to them, the bad things in their lives that happen because of them being celebrities and also just because of them being human beings, too, and even though to pray for them wouldn’t hurt me or cost me anything at all to do, well, I don’t know why, but I’ve just never ever felt the need or desire to do it, but tonight on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, I kind of felt the need, since of course the only important scene in the episode was the scene in which Spencer was baptized by Stephen Baldwin in the river in the jungle, this scene taking place after the food challenge in which Heidi in this Fear Factor-lite “torture chamber” compared herself to Daniel in the lion’s den and Spencer sank to his knees in front of the two hosts and prayed to Jesus for success in the upcoming competition, prayed that he could totally kick his wife’s ass at finding wooden stars in the dark in order to win loaves and fishes for his team, so then Spencer asked Stephen Baldwin to baptize him in the river, taking him up on an offer made during a big speech earlier in the episode, and Stephen Baldwin agreed, grinning, and Stephen Baldwin, like Heidi Montag, is the kind of Christian who we hate because, I mean, God, they’re so obnoxious about their faith, they wear it like t-shirts and baseball caps, they shoot it out of foghorns and car stereos, and this is the thing we’re supposed to hate, me and you, since if you read this far you’re surely a sensitive and private and deep  and intellectual person, too, just like me, honestly, we’re supposed to hate this kind of religion, this showy, in-your face, double barrel evangelism, this American performative spirituality, it’s supposed to make us feel icky and gross and it does, I mean, at least it makes a lot of people feel like that, like, when even someone as seemingly awful as Janice Dickinson protests this television baptism as a perversion of faith, as something which is wrong on some deep and real level, you know, like, yuck, and of course all of the preceding is assuming that the obnoxious faith that’s being crammed down our throats is in some way genuine and true and real, is in some way good, which is a thing we can maybe believe about Stephen Baldwin (who seems like an ass not really because he’s a Christian but because he’s a Baldwin) or Heidi Montag (who comes from this small town upbringing and had a brother who was in the army and died falling off of a roof in the snow), but which of course is an assumption that is very difficult to make about Spencer Pratt, a person who doesn’t ever really seem genuine or true and who really doesn’t seem good, doesn’t seem at all concerned with any notion of “good,” secular or spiritual, besides good entertainment, qualities which makes him an amazing television character but maybe somewhat frightening as a real person, although of course who knows him as a real person besides Heidi, not me, not you, and so in the scene Spencer and Stephen Baldwin were in the river and right up until the baptism, Spencer was making stupid jokes, not taking the thing seriously at all, like his baptism was going to be like doing a keg stand or something, extreme spirituality, bro, and then it happened and as I watched Stephen Baldwin dunk him into the river, this tiny dunk which just lasted a second, I was reminded of Sister Wendy talking about Piss Christ and how she said she didn’t see it as blasphemous, she saw it as this maybe cheap and easy but also provocative and kind of powerful reminder that we live in this age where faith and belief have lost a lot of their meaning and their position in the culture, and I just watched Spencer being baptized by Stephen Baldwin on TV and he came out of the water and all the other celebrities cheered for him and they seemed genuine and I just don’t know what to think about it, what to believe, that’s the problem, like this is the thing about the death of the Author, right, is that we can see whatever we want to see in this text, we can decide what to believe, but the thing is, I don’t know what I want to believe about the Spencer Pratt baptism that I watched on TV, I don’t know whether I want to believe that Spencer is on some level genuine about his faith (as I believe Heidi is, for all her put-ons and posing), that even if he isn’t a true believer, whatever that is, that still in the water as he was dunked under by Stephen Baldwin he felt something inside of him, I don’t know if I want to believe that or whether I want to believe it’s all just another completely fake scene, a staged play that’s been created to make us feel something in order to create a reaction and drive some plot, some eventual outcome, or whether I want to believe it’s both, some kind of insane postmodern performance art evangelism, like Michael Haneke making an infomercial of The Purpose Driven Life, and I don’t know whether I want people in the audience to read the baptism as a true expression of contemporary faith that they can take something from or whether I want them to read it as an exploitation of belief, as some dangerous falsehood, I don’t know what would make me feel better and more comfortable, which kind of reading, but at the very least I think the fact that I have to question these things and that this TV show has made me question them is a good thing, a productive thing, a thing that I want my TV to give me, but in the end, I still don’t know.  It’s a surreal life.


my best fiends

June 2, 2009

There’s this moment near the beginning of the premiere of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here where Janice Dickinson is leading her group of celebrities along this path to their camp in the Costa Rican jungle and suddenly she spots a monkey in the trees above her, “a big black monkey!” she shouts back to teammate John Salley, who plays with the racial implications of her saying this thing to him for a second before joining her and gawking up at the monkey, too, like, wow, a monkey, and the rest of the celebrities come along and Janice or John or somebody tells Heidi Montag about the monkey and the question that she asks is, “Is it real?“, we don’t see her asking this but we hear her saying it and see a shot of the monkey and the camera cuts to a close-up of John Salley who rolls his eyes, like, “What do you think, it’s a fake monkey?” he says, laughing, as if this is an impossible thing, and then these celebrities wearing waterproof microphones and being filmed for a television show continue walking along a marked trail to their carefully production-designed camp in an aesthetically pleasing and accessible portion of the jungle and all I could think of was Herzog, Herzog, Herzog, of the movie in the jungle with Werner and Klaus and the fakeness and the realness of things there, how they meshed and blended to create something else, how in the real environment of the jungle, things were fake, things including monkeys, how “to obtain the monkeys utilized in the climactic sequence, Herzog paid several locals to trap 400 monkeys; he paid them half in advance and was to pay the other half upon receipt. The trappers sold the monkeys to someone in Los Angeles or Miami, and Herzog came to the airport just as the monkeys were being loaded to be shipped out of the country. He pretended to be a veterinarian and claimed that the monkeys needed vaccinations before leaving the country. Abashedly, the handlers unloaded the monkeys, and Herzog loaded them into his jeep and drove away, used them in the shot they were required for, and released them afterwards into the jungle,” and then right after that monkey scene, there was a scene in which the celebrities were crossing a river and Patti Blagojevich was pulled down into the rapids and yanked downstream and this was not a planned thing, it seems, because the cameras snapped and strained to follow her as she was pulled along by the current and the other celebrities ran along the riverbank after her and as they did I was thinking of Herzog and the movie and how “at one point, a storm caused a river to flood, burying the film sets underneath several feet of water and destroying all of the rafts built for the film. This flooding was immediately incorporated into the story, as a sequence including a flood and subsequent rebuilding of rafts was shot,” and as the show went on and on and on, I was still thinking of Herzog except I wasn’t thinking of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, no, I haven’t even seen that movie, actually, I was just pretending to have seen it in that part you were reading a second ago, I was being fake, no, actually,

actually I was thinking of Stellan Skarsgård playing “Verner” on Entourage, playing a fictional version of Herzog in this fictional story arc on Entourage in which he fictionally abused fictional pretty boy Hollywood actor Vincent Chase who was being played by real pretty boy Hollywood actor Adrien Grenier, and how this fictional abuse was like a smooth jazz Hollywood version of Herzog’s abuse of Kinski and how all of it took place as they filmed a fake movie within the show, narratives stacked like nested dolls, and I just imagined Spencer Pratt watching it, because Spencer Pratt probably hasn’t seen Aguirre either, he hasn’t seen the real Herzog, but I know he’s seen Entourage, I’m sure, it being a fake version of the real Hollywood club scene he enjoyed in real life and also in certain scenes on his semi-fictional television show, and so I just imagined him there sitting on his couch in Hollywood and eating nachos and watching Skarsgård playing Herzog on Entourage and laughing his ass off at the whole thing, drinking it in,

because on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here tonight, Spencer was Herzog and Kinski, too,  director and actor, and that’s hyperbole but this is a rant, okay, and I never really got that he had that in him before, I guess, I never really understood the depth of his talent because on The Hills he was always overshadowed by Lauren, literally, overshadowed, he was in the darkness in contrast to her face and the light and the way the two connected, it was kind of like how the male actors in The Passion of Joan of Arc are good and talented and everything but nobody’s fucking watching it for them, you know, nobody cares about them, like his ugly-ass beard was almost a symbolic protest to this effect, but it seems so apropos that the day after Lauren leaves television is the day that Spencer really becomes a star, because he did tonight, I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t care what the ratings say, whatever, like there was this scene in the first hour in which he and Heidi were threatening to leave the show and so they went off to this isolated area to make a scene only featuring the two of them, a strategy they employed over and over throughout the episode in order to guarantee them more screen time, and from this secluded position Spencer called fucking Ben Silverman on some producer’s cell phone and complained about the quality of the other celebrities on the show, how this was “devaluing their fame” and of course the other celebrities heard this and had this discussion about how they’re famous for real and solid things while Spencer and Heidi are just famous for being famous, for being reality stars, for doing this show in which they live their lives, and it was just so ridiculous

because what all the other celebrities besides Heidi and Spencer don’t seem to understand is that to be on reality television show, you have to be on a reality television show, it involves performance and not just existence, it involves making your existence a performance, active, not passive, so that while in the first episode most of the other “celebrities” were content with just being in the jungle, sitting around by the fire and swatting mosquitoes and swimming in the river, Heidi and Spencer actively took over every minute of the show, all two hours, and did this by being completely aware of and self conscious about the conventions of reality television and how to play with them to create story and effect and meaning, so that their performances throughout the episode were sort of a greatest hits of reality TV tropes, Spencer beginning the episode by playing some combination of Richard Hatch and Will Kirby, the archetypal reality villains, Heidi going all Elizabeth Hasselbeck Filarski, the good Christian girl with a heart of gold, and with these personae established they were off, controlling their scenes from start to finish, so that when Patti Blagojevich got swept away by the river, Heidi was immediately in the water to save her and Spencer was right on the shore, in the frame with her, always in the frame, and then when they got to the camp, almost as soon as everyone had been introduced to each other, Heidi and Spencer went off to have a love scene alone together, creating a couples moment, and then they were back with the group and, seconds later, when that got boring again, there was a new story, they were threatening to leave the show, Spencer ranting and raving and filling the screen, and then that was dealt with and then the next morning when all the other celebrities woke up and began to do chores, Heidi and Spencer pretended to sleep in their hammock, which was strategically located at center stage, if a jungle can be considered a stage, and they stayed in the hammock pretending to be asleep so long that the other celebrities watched them and talked about them and finally got out cameras and took pictures of them, like, in the middle of the show, the other celebrities stopped to take pictures of them, like they were tourists or paparazzi watching some big stars, all according to plan, and then when Heidi and Spencer finally woke up, they staged another exit, creating an absence of narrative which only they would be able to fill, and then there was a big fight scene in which Spencer went totally faux-Kinski on one of the female comics on the show, screaming and raging at her about this shampoo bottle of Heidi’s that had been stolen, Heidi in the background crying and halfheartedly pleading with him to stop but Spencer went on, ranting and raging at the woman comic, all up in her face, and everyone clustered around him and tried to stop him, John Salley holding him back as if he were going to kill her, and he just kept reprising the scene, letting it die down a bit as if it was going to end and then coming back again and again like James Brown falling and rising from the stage, prolonging the moment, and at the apex of the fight, he got back in the woman’s face and started yelling, “Stop making stories! Stop making stories! Stop making stories!“, just yelling it over and over again in the middle of this big, loud story he’d just made for himself, this starring role which he had created out of nothing but shampoo, this pure soap opera, and then he finally let it die and throughout the rest of the episode, Heidi and Spencer continued to dominate every scene, sometimes by big gestures as before but other times just by doing small things, such as how Spencer kept hugging his teammates during the food challenge in order to stay in the frame with them as much as possible or how during the live challenge at the end of the episode, Heidi kept spraying herself and Spencer with her hairspray, creating visual interest to catch our eyes, directing the scene without ever touching the camera,

but the best example of this, okay maybe not best morally but best in terms of art and entertainment value, was when Spencer took the initiative to do “The Patti Blagojevich Scene,” because, again, he was self conscious about how the show would work, what it would be like, how it would be received, and he knew that even people who didn’t care about him or Heidi or Janice Dickinson or those stupid comics from VH1 would still be interested in “The Patti Blagojevich Scene,” that they would still want to know if she would talk about the story, the “elephant in the room,” that there would be a lot of newspaper stories and magazine articles and TV reports about her talking about her story, and so Spencer knew that he had to deliver this scene, had to, and so he did it, he made the scene, produced and directed and starred in it, at first playing the thoughtful interviewer, asking polite and respectful questions and making good eye contact and everything, and then, after he’d gotten her to open up to him and the cameras a little, he started asserting himself more, finally saying that he thought Patti and Rob Blagojevich were like “the Heidi and Spencer of politics,” superimposing his brand over theirs in some kind of hideous palimpsest, and then all of this culminating in a prayer, a real live prayer on prime time TV, Heidi invoking the name of Jesus more than I’ve ever heard outside of The 700 Club, the three of them linking arms and praying there right in front of us and Patti Blagojevich crying for reasons we can’t know but which created this image, this prayer image, which will be a part of any story about Patti Blagojevich now, the crying and the praying on television, and that’s kind of why it doesn’t matter if Spencer and Heidi “win” I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in the traditional sense, which they almost surely won’t because nobody likes them, because they’re evil, but it doesn’t matter because in some way, they’ve already won, because tonight they took two hours of expensive, heavily promoted, prime time network television and they controlled it completely, they made it a two hour commercial for their brand, they won.  It’s not how you win or lose, it’s how you play the game, and Heidi and Spencer won tonight because they played the game, because they understand the game better than anyone, because in some ways they made the game what it is today, they invented the moves, the plays, the strategies.  Together, they will rule this entire country, they will endure, they are the wrath of God.

This is a new thing I’m trying, love letters to the medium.